I’m pretty stressed out by my studies, and I feel so conflicted because I don’t want to burden people by saying that I’m not free. What should I do?

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m pretty stressed this semester and I feel that I can’t tell anyone or vent to anyone about it since everyone’s really stressed. I also feel like I’m invalidating my feelings by comparing my level of stress with others and seeing how they need to go to school everyday, etc. So I just keep telling myself I’m doing alright. But I’m really just stressed. And because I don’t like to share this kind of thing with my friends, people think I’m really free. I feel so conflicted because I am also a people pleaser and I don’t want to burden people by saying I’m not free because of my assignments. What should I do?

I want you to know that it’s ok to feel stressed and it’s ok to share with others that you are stressed. I believe everyone’s feeling very stressed at the moment, so you’re not alone. :)

I will say that in our culture today, we focus so much on the importance of helping our friends. But we forget to emphasise that it’s just as important to open up opportunities for our friends to help us if and when they want to. To deprive them of such opportunities is to deprive our friends a chance to show they care.

Imagine this scenario where you have a friend whom you care about so much. If one day you found that your friend didn’t share her problems with you, how would you feel? You’d feel rather upset, won’t you?

It can feel like that friend didn’t trust you enough or didn’t consider you close enough to confide in you. Similarly, other people — those friends who do care about us — will feel that way too if they learnt that we don’t share our lives with them in such a way.

This is not a case of airing dirty laundry. To air dirty laundry is to tell the general public about your problems. But with friends, things are different. We confide in them. And if you feel bad about burdening them, you can at least tell them that you want a listening ear, and not a solution. That’s important.

I think one of the important life skills is learning how to say “no,” to people and not feel guilty about it. I’m not sure what kind of things your friends are asking you to do, but it is very important to learn to communicate honestly with them. Because if we can’t be honest with our friends about things like this, and if we can’t trust that our friends will stay close to us even if we turn them down, then it’s a sign that we’re not maintaining the quality of the friendship well.

Unless we learn to be honest with them, and unless we learn how to maintain the friendship even after saying no to their requests from time to time, that friendship will remain at a very superficial level.

Do take care of yourself. Sleep early and drink plenty of water. These will help you cope a little better with the stress.

Any advice on how to make friends of the opposite gender?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Any advice on how to make friends of the opposite gender? Or is it okay not to have friends of the opposite gender? I always feel like I can click better with ppl of the same gender, but like I have nothing to talk about with people of the opposite gender. It’s very awkward. Why is that so? Or am I just an awkward potato?

Haha! I’m the opposite of you. I find it easier to click with people of the opposite gender, than it is to click with people of the same gender. But I think it has to do more with your own personal interests than it is about gender (unless you’re putting necessary pressure on yourself of hoping to date one of them).

I think it’s important to have a diverse group of friends. Not just different genders, but also different ages. You need this sort of diversity to open your worldview on a variety of matters.

The secret is that everyone’s awkward and lonely. So it helps to be the one to break the ice. You have no idea how many people appreciate the fact that you’ll come up to them with a smile to talk. As Mother Teresa once said, the greatest poverty in this world is loneliness. So be that spark. Don’t give up just because you feel awkward.

Here’s some conversational tricks I use to sustain conversations with random strangers:

One trick I’ve learnt is to prepare a wide array of topics to talk about. I like to think of it as carrying out an independent study on popular culture. There are some songs, movies, TV shows, books, art, and games that you must know about. It helps if you’ve watched/read/heard them. Otherwise, at least make sure you’ve read about them enough to talk about it. My typical script when conversing with people these days is to talk about Netflix, and then I’ll talk about some popular shows that I’ve watched, before I proceed to ask them about show recommendations. People are pretty passionate about Netflix, so you’ve got that covered.

I’ve learnt that this doesn’t work very well with older people. They like to talk more about stuff relating to politics and the economy. When I’m in the mood, I usually practice small talk (because I get bad at it if I don’t practice) with the taxi/Grab driver. I’ll say something like, “Oh, the economy lately has been really bad, yeah? How’s business?” And then the driver will go on a tirade about Singapore’s politics and economy, and maybe talk about how they’re coping with life. Usually, you learn interesting facts that you can use in other conversations, e.g. “The other day, my Grab driver shared that ….”

One other trick is to keep asking people to talk more about themselves. People love talking about themselves, and if you ask/probe further about their stories, they’ll be very happy to share them. You can imagine yourself like an interviewer preparing to write a magazine article about them. So you can probe parts of their stories that sound interesting to you. You often learn an interesting nugget or two along the way. As you do this, you’ll discover common topics of interest, which hopefully you’ll be able to latch on and talk excitedly about those things.

Here’s some conversational starting questions you can ask:

“What did you do last weekend?”

“I want to pursue a hobby, but I’m not sure what hobby to pick up. What do you recommend?”

“Which country do you hope to visit some day?”

“My friend says that she loves sparkly vampires. I don’t know. I prefer them less sparkly and maybe a little more dead inside. What do you prefer?”

“Which is cooler? Star Wars or Harry Potter?”

Give it a try!

What are your thoughts on students trying to find internships with their friends?

A student asked:

What are your thoughts on students trying to find internships with their friends? In other words, they only apply for internships where they might be able to work with the friends in the same office.

I don’t recommend doing this. You should learn to enter into the unknown all alone by yourself. Working world’s going to be like that, so it’s better to get used to it. Learn to make new friends with your colleagues. It’s a very important life skill.

If you do an internship with a friend (or friends), there is a greater tendency to want to stick with your friend(s), and not learn to break into pre-existing cliques among your colleagues. This can be detrimental to your professional development as you’re not only losing out on developing relations with your colleagues, but the lack of interaction with them may mean that you don’t get properly socialised into the office culture, or you lose the opportunity to build trust with your colleagues enough for them to want to give you more important projects to take on for your own growth and development.

Also, there is a tendency among more immature interns to joke and play a fool at work, especially when they’re with their friends. This leaves a really bad impression on your supervisors. Be aware that when you apply for jobs in the future, the hiring manager may call your previous company to ask about you. And if you were playing around in the office with your friend(s), they won’t hesitate to be honest about their negative assessment about you.

Do you think it’s wrong to cut off people, even if they were your closest friends, just to protect your mental health?

A student wrote a very heartfelt message, with the following question:

Do you think it’s wrong to cut off people (by ghosting), even if they were your closest friends, just to protect your mental health?

I cut them off because I no longer felt happy in those friendships.And I chose to ghost them because I knew that they wouldn’t understand my point of view, and I really wasn’t sure whether or not I should continue holding on to these friendships.

I feel like the reasons why I was unhappy had to do with my mental state and their personality. They aren’t as patient and as willing to try to understand me. and it went on for years.

Having read until here, you would think that since I have conceded that it’s a mismatch of friendships, why would I even bother anymore right? But the thing is I continue feeling sad about losing them and I even feel scared of what they may say behind my back. I tried talking to the most recent person I cut off and damn she was so paggro. She blamed me for cutting her off, instead of understanding my point of view.

What do you think?

Thank you for trusting me and pouring out your soul on this issue.

I think it’s ok to cut off people from your life, especially bad friends or toxic people. I had to cut off two friends who became too emotionally dependent that they were using me as an emotional support clutch and weren’t doing anything about their lives. It went on for more than a year, and I was very drained mentally and emotionally. One of them became so obsessively clingy he insisted on meeting me, and when I said I was busy or didn’t respond to his messages, he’d contact all my mutual friends to find out where I was. It was creepy as hell.

However, all that said, I don’t agree that one should ghost them. I find ghosting to be a really disrespectful action. We think that it hurts someone less, but it ends up causing the person so much more hurt. No one deserves to be ghosted. And this is especially so if they were good friends or at least had some degree of closeness. The least we should do is to explain why we want to cut them off so that they have some closure. The lack of an explanation, the lack of closure, can be very hurtful to them.

Silence says too much, perhaps much more than it should. And some people allow their imagination to run wild as they try to piece the pieces together in an attempt to make sense of why you might have ghosted them. This causes them to feel more hurt and pain as a consequence.

In the example you gave about your friend, she sounds like she’s been deeply hurt by what had happened. I think it’s still possible to rebuild the friendship. It will take time to rebuild the trust, so you will need to be patient about it.

Personally, I have tried to reconnect with the two people I cut off for being emotionally dependent. It started out awkward at first, but we started hanging out again after a while. Sadly, the friendships with those two (they used to be good friends, by the way), didn’t last despite reconnecting. It turned out that they could not get back up on their feet. They were still overly needy and clingy in ways that continued to exact a huge toll on me. I had to make the difficult decision of cutting them off again.

I do hope that you’ll find better success than I did with reconnecting with your friends. From what you write, they don’t sound like toxic people, or emotionally dependent people. I am quite optimistic that you will do well with reconnecting with them. Let me share with you two things that may help you to rebuild your friendships:

Firstly, you said that you cut off people “to protect your mental health” because you “no longer felt happy in those friendships.” I think it’s ok to cut people off from your life especially if those friendships make you very miserable. But there is a distinction between happiness and mental health. One can be very unhappy but still be in a good psychological state. Unless you are hanging out with toxic people, unhappy friendships do not necessarily lead to an impact on one’s mental health. So conflating unhappiness with one’s mental health as if the two things are one and the same can get in the way of developing close and healthy friendships. My worry is that when we conflate the two as one, we may end up being way too over-protective about preserving our psychological state, that we end up – ironically – losing our minds over it.

Secondly, you said that your friends “wouldn’t understand [your] point of view,” that they “aren’t as patient and as willing to try to understand [you].” I think it’s important to reflect on whether you were just as patient and willing to understand them, or patient and willing to let them understand you. It’s important for us to recognise that how we feel about a situation may not accurately reflect what is actually going on, and that can also stand in the way of developing close friendships.

I say this because you wrote that you “knew they wouldn’t understand [your] point of view.” In reality, it is very difficult to arrive at such a conclusion with high certainty (or to even know it as a fact). And so when we make conclusions like this, it might be a conclusion that we arrived too prematurely without sufficient empirical support.

Our feelings may make us feel justified about the matter, but that’s the only support we have: feelings. I want you to know that it is very valid to feel this way. Your feelings about the matter are very valid. That said, in most cases, however, it is not enough to arrive at such a conclusion because you actually need to have access to their innermost thoughts to know for sure that they didn’t understand you. What you feel is a response to their outward words or actions, it is not the same as their innermost thoughts. A heart-to-heart talk may help you gain some insights to their innermost thoughts, but sometimes people struggle to clearly articulate what’s really in their minds and hearts, and what they say may not match what they actually intended to say. It doesn’t help that our interpretation of what people say may be incorrect as well.

Going forward, what will be useful is to make it a point to perceive that every time your friends talk to you, or try to have heart-to-heart talks, they are trying their best to understand you and your point of view. Friends who care will always try their best. It may not be perfect, and so we have to be patient about it.

This brings me to the next point that we can’t expect friends to be perfect, like a perfect breakfast that comes about by grabbing a box of banana nut crunch cornflakes off the shelf from Sheng Siong (that’s not my breakfast, but I wished it was). I do think that we should try to be more patient with our friends. Sometimes our closest friends don’t understand us because we aren’t giving them the chance to understand us.

Sometimes, it’s because of a lack of communication. Friends – and even close friends – won’t know what we need until we say it. And it’s not realistic to expect them to know what we need because we’re all different. People differ in their love languages and they will express love and care in ways that may not match your expectation. So communication is very important.

I do wish you all the best in this matter. And I hope that you’ll also find many new and wonderful friends along the way. :)

Lunch with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan

Wow… This has got to be one of the most exciting events before the year ends! A few days ago, I received a comment on my blog by Dr. Balakrishnan, saying how he enjoyed reading my blog and would like to have lunch with me. (Dear Dr. Balakrishnan, if you’re reading this, hello!) For those who don’t know who he is, Dr. Balakrishnan is the current minister of Environment and Water Resources.

Wow… A minister enjoys reading my blog! What a surprise and an honour!

For the days leading up to our lunch, I’ve been wondering why he’d like to have lunch with me. In fact, I was very curious as to how he found my blog. Was it because of my blog entries about the rising cost of living, or about the cost of housing? The Girlfriend joked that he probably found my blog while searching how to use Whatsapp for Mac (it’s the most popular post I have – it generates at least 500 hits a day!)

Well, surprise surprise! He did discover my blog searching for instructions on how to use Whatsapp for Mac! WOW! So cool!

Anyway, he invited me to invite a few friends so that we could have a nice chit chat session, and so I did. We had lunch at a Penang eatery along Thomson Road. For someone who never had the opportunity to meet a minister before, it was quite an experience (and somewhat intimidating one too!) seeing body guards. There was an advance party of security men who came to scout and check the area, and later, there were body guards escorting the minister into the cafe.

My friends and I were excited and nervous at the same time. I mean, it’s a minister! What do you say to a minister? And how should one behave?

Well, surprisingly, Dr. Balakrishnan was very friendly and approachable! In fact, he was quite down to earth too!

Usually, the media portrays ministers as people who are so high-up, that we forget that they are ordinary human beings just like us. But during that lunch meeting, I was very impressed.

Sitting before me was someone as ordinary and as human as we are, sharing similar interests and likes. Here was someone who was as passionate about technology, food, and chinese culture as I am. Here was someone who was curious to learn how to make Whatsapp work on his computer just like the many technophiles around me. Here was someone who loved both Singapore and Malaysian food that he would talk just as passionately about food just like many Singaporeans here. Haha… I told him that I looooved Malaysian Char Kway Teow (it’s very different from the Singapore one), and immediately he replied, “I think it’s the lard that makes it so tasty!” A few minutes before he came, another friend said the exact same thing! He also shared with us his food trips to Malaysia. So cool!

What I loved the most was just how genuine and sincere he was with us. We were very amazed with his sharings about his own personal life and especially about his family.

The one story that left the deepest impression for myself and my friends was his sharing of the time when he first held his first-born child in his hands. Wow… You could sense just how emotional he was as he recounted the experience and the thoughts and feelings that went through his mind during that event. He shared how during that one moment, he suddenly understood the love that his parents had for him, he suddenly understood what parental love was – it was a love that would often be unreciprocated and yet, you’d still want to continue giving your love to your child no matter what. He shared with us how as a parent holding his baby child for the first time, he realised just how vulnerable and dependent the child was on him, and how he had to do whatever was possible to ensure that she would grow up well. He experienced parental love for the first time and that was a great learning experience for him.

Just hearing him share his experience made me feel like wanting to have a child as soon as possible. Wow… I’d like to experience what he experienced.

As it turns out, the lunch was really a lunch with no political agenda. My friends and I have been speculating if he had something in mind (after all, why would politicians ask people to have lunch out of the blue?), but it turned out to be nothing more than a friendly chat over a meal, just as how friends would sit around a table to eat. I did ask him why he wanted to have lunch with me, as I was very very curious. He replied that this was something he likes to do. He finds a Singaporean online who’s interesting, and he extends an invitation to have a meal with him because he just likes meeting interesting people. Pretty cool. I know most people reading this might be skeptical (afterall, these are words coming from a politician), but rest assured, all of my friends and I agreed that he was very genuine and sincere about this.

Anyway, we did chat about issues on life, relationships, and philosophy – especially since my friends and I are philosophy students. It was interesting as he did bring up some interesting philosophical issues for us to consider in the area of politics. (I’ll discuss them in another blog post)

I think it was really great of him to engage us philosophers intellectually on such issues. In fact, I like how he has such great respect for philosophy. It’s rare because we philosophers often encounter people who think lowly of philosophy only because they think it’s impractical (can’t make money) and/or pointless. It’s very interesting how he framed policy-making problems as philosophical problems. For example, one of the problems governments face is the issue of trying to balance justice with equality. E.g. an equal distribution may not necessarily be a just distribution because some need more than others, and on the other hand, a just distribution is often regarded as unfair since not everyone is treated equally (e.g. why should married couples get more subsidies than singles – why can’t everyone be treated the same way?).

It is a difficult balance and it does seem that both values are contrary to each other, and regardless of which way governments decide to emphasize, there will always be complaints of unfairness. I think that was eye-opening!

Anyway, I guess it’s inevitable that when having lunch with a politician, the issue of politics will be discussed.

I will say that after our lunch together, I have a profound respect for Dr. Balakrishnan because he’s the first PAP (Peoples’ Action Party) person who articulated why the government does what they do, in a very convincing and thorough manner.

It’s sad, but the media and many PAP politicians do a bad job in communicating the rationale for their policies. It’s either too simplified that it sounds ridiculous, or the person speaking assumes that we’re on the same channel (and see the world the same way as him/her) and makes too many assertions that many of us consider questionable.

I’ll be honest and say that while I don’t agree with some of the things said, I am nonetheless glad to at least have the opportunity to hear the justifications for many of the things the government does. When you read the gross over-simplifications in the news, you sometimes wonder if the country is run by rational people. But after our lunch discussion, I am glad to know that a lot of thought has indeed been put into their policy-making decisions. Of course, there is always room to debate the policies, but given the way they have framed the problems, the solutions they have conceived do indeed appear to be the necessary solutions.

The real question then is, has the PAP government framed the problems rightly? Should many of these national issues be framed in light of economics? Of course, I don’t know enough nor have I thought enough about these matters as of this moment. But I think these are indeed worth discussing.

Dr. Balakrishnan mentioned that one of the failings of the PAP was that they’ve been really bad at communicating policies. Seeing how the picture provided by him is more rational and worlds apart from the picture presented by the media, I wonder if the people who communicate these policies to the news ought to be shot for grossly oversimplifying things. (Personally, I think I can do a much better job than them if this was indeed the case) Of course, skeptics will question how is it possible that state-run media can do such a bad job. I don’t know.

Nonetheless, this is exactly what we need in our public discourse – a thorough discussion of why policies are what they are, with all the fine details included, making no assumptions that we necessarily see things from the same point of view. I do think that if ministers (and the media) make it a point to thoroughly discuss the fine details and all just like what Dr. Balakrishnan did at lunch, we can begin to have fruitful debates about our public policy. We may not necessarily agree, but at the very least, we can start to see why such a decision or proposal could even be rational at all. Too many issues are presented in a simplistic manner (in the news) that it seems more like badly-made decisions rather than well-thought decisions.

Once we begin to see that the other guy is rational (and not a moron), we begin to respect the other, and we can proceed with fruitful dialogue. I think this is what we urgently need in Singapore today, especially in the wake of increasing polarisation among PAP and opposition supporters.

When we begin to fight for our political parties like soccer teams, we cease to be rational, and democracy becomes no more than just a tyranny of the loudest – whoever shouts the loudest wins. This kind of democracy is not productive nor is it truly life-giving.

Anyway, I am glad that we had this lunch. We had good food and good food for thought. Thank you Dr. Balakrishnan! You’re amazing! My friends and I would love to have lunch with you again.

Reflections Along the Singapore-Malaysia Railway Tracks

The railway tracks functions very well as a metaphor for a person’s life.


Sometimes, we have to walk the journey alone. But that’s ok because we’re surrounded by the beautiful blue sky.



But sometimes, the journey of life can be very scary – gloomy, even. At times, we have no choice but to walk through these moments of darkness – alone.



There are times where the darkness of the moment overwhelms us. Sometimes, we can’t help but feel severely burdened by the pain of walking alone.



Some unfortunately lose their soles because of this.



Jean-Paul Sartre said that, “Hell is other people.” But when we suffer from such dark moments of loneliness, we become our own hell. There’s no one to get in our way. There’s no one to annoy us. And yet, we feel so trapped, so imprisoned. It is as if our whole wings have been clipped, and our feet chained to the ground. In moments like these, we begin to crave for freedom like never before.



But what kind of freedom do we really need? Is it the freedom to go off the tracks? Or is it the freedom to touch the sky?



The darkness can be confusing. We know we want freedom, and yet we often don’t understand what it is that we truly need. And so, off we go chasing after a freedom which may not necessarily be the answer to our darkness.



But what does it profit a man to gain the world, but to lose his sole?



The greatest freedom comes when we begin to open our eyes to realise the many people – friends and strangers who are not yet friends – who are and have been walking along-side with us in such moments of darkness.



In such moments, the darkness doesn’t seem so dark anymore. When we begin to accept their friendship and help, the journey becomes more pleasant. The journey will still be rocky, but at the very least, we’re surrounded by fellow companions who are on the same journey. Soon enough, with their help, we find ourselves reaching the end of the tunnel, back out into the light.



Successfully perservering through such moments is like crossing over a bridge. It can be scary, but we can rest assured by the fact that we have friends waiting for us at the other end of the bridge.



At every moment of our lives, there is always at least one friend who accompanies us on our journey – whether we realise it or not.



As we continue walking on this journey of life, we’ll eventually meet the love of our life.



And at that beautiful moment of marriage, two tracks converge into one. But marriage isn’t just a merger of two lives. It brings together many many more! Friends and family from both tracks begin to walk along with us on that single track, chatting with us, annoying us, cheering us, working with us.



I think it’s important for us to always remember that the journey of life is always rocky. The ground is never gentle and smooth.



But no matter what, there’s always a beautiful blue sky covering us, watching over us. It’s a beauty that’s always there, but we rarely notice it. The secret of life is to always take a step back from the mad frenzy of life, look up, and contemplate the sky’s subtle beauty.